The four-day week as a transformation project
In the face of multiple crises and defensive struggles, the left lacks hope - although there would be broad support for a reduction in working hours.
By Philipp Frey and Stephan Krull
[This article posted in November 2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/artikel/vier-tage-woche/.]
Work is of great importance for humanity and for each individual. It is not just about gainful employment, but also about non-gainful employment: caring for relatives or friends, voluntary work in the trade union or sports club, work on and in democracy and much more. The length of the working week is above all a question of power: during working hours, the worker, the engineer, the employed doctor and the journalist are all subject to the employer's right of direction. The longer the working week, the longer the owners of capital and their managers decide what people do and don't do, the longer they live without self-determination and the higher the profit that is made from externally determined work. And the longer the working day, the shorter one's own time, the fewer the opportunities for self-realization, education and emancipation as well as social and political participation. Accordingly, struggles for time have been at the heart of the political and trade union workers' movement for over 200 years.
"Work makes life sweet - as sweet as machine oil - I only do things all day that I don't want to do" (Ton, Steine, Scherben)
In the current multiple crisis, a genuine four-day week and a new normal working relationship could not only be effective means of cushioning crisis phenomena and transformation conflicts, there is also a historic opportunity for a social alliance that would actually be able to organize majorities for progressive politics. In view of the rapidly escalating climate crisis, increasing social polarization and the failure of the project of green capitalism, the formation of a counter-project that is capable of securing the (super)living conditions of humanity in an emancipatory way is more urgent than ever. Central to this is the question of how the economy can be reorganized in a socially and ecologically sustainable way. Such interventions in economic organization require broad social alliances, which are only possible if various social power resources can be productively bundled.
These power resources include the political power of employees to disrupt and interrupt economic processes. They include the legislative power of progressive parties to shift the framework conditions of economic activity and reshape markets. And finally, it requires the - above all - discursive power of civil society groups, from the climate justice movement to feminist groups and churches, which can help to promote the formation of a new economic and socio-political common sense in the public debate and organize public support for radical reforms (Dörre 2021).
Given the relative weakness of the trade unions, one strategic challenge lies in bringing these resources together. Organizational logics and cultural-habitual hurdles often stand in the way of this. Such cooperation must therefore be consciously established and pursued. Lighthouse projects that represent a common goal of different actors and can serve as a kind of counter-hegemonic bracket are helpful. Solidarity among the alliance partners can become practical in the struggles for such lighthouse projects, which can potentially also be mobilized for further - and more far-reaching - transformation projects.
Historical alliance for a new normal employment relationship
We therefore propose that the fight for a genuine four-day week and a new normal working relationship of 28 hours per week with full wage compensation and the necessary staff compensation be made a flagship project for the coming years and worked towards across organizations. For employees and their interest groups, a reduction in working hours is a way of organizing a better share of the wealth they generate and the increasing productivity of their work, thereby improving the quality of their living conditions. By establishing a "new normal employment relationship" (Riexinger/Becker 2017), they can also shift the balance of power on the labor market in favor of employees and achieve more sovereignty with regard to shaping their working conditions. As the demand for a reduction in working hours is shared by a broad majority of employees across generations (Lott/Windscheid 2023), this offers the opportunity to produce a conflict that has the potential to have an impact and contribute to renewing the trade union movement.
The disputes surrounding this will be protracted - but there are few demands in the trade union movement that enjoy such broad social support: in terms of party politics, the demand for a reduction in working hours is part of the core repertoire of left-of-center parties. This applies in particular to DIE LINKE, but also to the SPD and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen. Even if this is not necessarily accompanied by political support in concrete conflicts, it could be used as a starting point. Thanks to successful field trials (see Frey 2023), there is certainly a great deal of media attention for the issue and large sections of civil society are also open to the demand: From a feminist perspective, (wage) reductions in working hours offer the opportunity to distribute wage and care work more fairly. For female employees in particular, they represent a way out of the part-time trap while at the same time improving the compatibility of family and career. The debate on reducing working hours also makes it possible to question the fixation of the public discourse on wage labor and to propagate an appreciation of other forms of work, as conceived, for example, in Frigga Haug's 4-in-1 perspective. It is precisely against the backdrop of the unfair distribution of care and paid work that it becomes clear how much employers' associations are arguing in a way that ignores social reality: In fact, the average working time is already only around 30 hours as a result of the massive increase in part-time employment. However, this reduction in working hours has taken place without wage compensation, i.e. on the backs of employees, especially women, who make their private care work livable by reducing their working hours. In care and teaching professions, the majority of employees already work part-time because longer working hours are too stressful.
Enhancing the value of caring relationships by reducing gainful employment is also compatible with conservative and religious milieus. It is worth remembering the slogan of the DGB campaign for the five-day week: "Saturday is dad's day." The current positions of the Catholic Workers' Movement (KAB) and the Protestant Service in the World of Work (KdA) also show this. Nowadays, in addition to strengthening the family, there is also the motive of preserving creation in the sense of a sabbath economy, which seeks to place advances in productivity in the service of the good life instead of accelerated accumulation. The question of whether increasing productivity is translated into further economic growth and a corresponding increase in resource consumption, or whether time prosperity is expanded instead, is in turn central to combating the climate crisis. In this respect, reducing working hours can also offer a point of convergence for alliances between the trade union and climate justice movements (Liebig 2021).
Ultimately, the demand for a new division of labor touches on elementary questions of justice, solidarity and the elimination of multiple social divisions. Overwork and underemployment are risks for democracy, they often feed resentment towards minorities, lead to political abstinence or an orientation towards authoritarian political "solutions".
Successful large-scale experiments
The pandemic, environmental disasters and the current wars have ushered in a new era, a kind of "turning point". This also includes the almost disruptive changes in the German automotive industry: an end to combustion engines, drastically shifted markets, declining production, underutilized capacities in Europe and the associated job cuts - after all, minus 60,000 employees since 2019. Entire sites have been closed at Opel, Ford, Bosch and Conti, while short-time work and job cuts are the order of the day at VW and Audi. These upheavals could be cushioned with a significant reduction in working hours. This could not only absorb surplus staff, gain time for retraining and allay employees' fears (cf. Candeias/Krull 2022).
In his own work biography, one of the authors (Stephan Krull) of this text has experienced and helped to shape three historical stages of disputes about reducing working hours: My vocational training as a typesetter in a small print shop began in the mid-1960s with the introduction of the 40-hour week. The six-day week was a thing of the past, the working week was one day shorter and independent life was one day longer. I started at Volkswagen in the mid-1980s: After the 35-hour week had been enforced through tough strikes and broad social support under the slogan "More time to live, love and laugh", more staff were needed. After all, during the overproduction crisis at the beginning of the 1990s, as a member of the IG Metall wage commission, I was involved in the decision to introduce a 28.8-hour week, and as a member of the works council at VW, I was also involved in its implementation. Perhaps the most important result of this unique reduction in working hours was the exclusion of compulsory redundancies. The company was deprived of the worst kind of staff reduction with the collective agreement on the reduction in working hours, and the power of disposal over people was severely restricted. Since then, no one with an employment contract at Volkswagen has had to worry about being made redundant at the end of the next month. This has far-reaching consequences for location policy, as well as for the existence and awareness of employees. Because this reduction in working hours affected all employees equally, solidarity was also learned in this process.
And it changed the life of an entire city: for 40 years until the 1990s, production at Volkswagen worked in two shifts: from 5.30 am to 2 pm and from 2 pm to 10.30 pm. Wolfsburg "breathed" with the car factory and its 60,000 employees - early in the morning, at midday and late in the evening. When the 28.8-hour week began in spring 1994, the daily working hours in the paint shop, where I worked as a works council member, were reduced to six hours over five days: The early shift from 7am to 1pm and the late shift from 1pm to 7pm. Nobody had to get up early in the morning during the deep sleep phase anymore, nobody came home completely exhausted in the afternoon or at midnight when everyone was asleep. It was a great liberation; people and life in the city changed, as the corresponding political, sociological and economic studies show. In fact, this reduction in working hours was also a gain for the company, for example, because it saved on shift premiums, enabled greater flexibility (there were around 160 different working time models) and increased productivity.
Learning from won battles
Less work for the same pay. In the collective bargaining round starting in November 2023, IG Metall is demanding a 32-hour week for employees in the steel industry. Knut Giesler, District Manager of North Rhine-Westphalia and chief negotiator for the local bargaining committee, makes it clear: "We want to achieve real relief for employees without them earning less as a result." After all, working time is not just an economic category, but also has social, ecological, democratic and cultural dimensions, as outlined above. In the current situation and in view of the lower personnel requirements of modern and sustainable production facilities, such as modern electric arc furnaces for steel production, reductions in working hours are also a means of securing employment in the relevant sectors. As the resistance to climate policy measures increases in the context of so-called culture wars, social security is fundamental in the transformation towards more sustainable industrial production. The demand for a 32-hour week in the steel industry is therefore a paradigmatic example of socio-ecological class politics: it combines the ecological restructuring of the industry with the demand for better working conditions and thus points the way beyond conservative interest politics - and towards an alliance with large sections of civil society.
At the same time, it is a demand based on solidarity, as it also aims to overcome the injustice between older and younger, female and male employees (see Detje/Meyer-Ahuya in the upcoming issue 02/23): Precarious employment in internships, mini-jobs and short part-time work are mainly young and female. Without a reduction and fair division of working hours, it will not be possible to achieve gender equality and improve the situation of precarious workers and the so-called silent reserve and their participation in social life. There is also great awareness of this at the top of IG Metall in NRW. Knut Giesler repeatedly emphasized the unequal distribution of wage and care work, the problems of part-time employment and the systematic marginalization of millions of people without work.
Because of its emancipatory nature, the demand for a reduction in working hours has always met with resistance from those in economic and political power. This makes it all the more important for different actors to strive for a broad social alliance: trade unions alone will not be able to win the disputes as long as there is no social tailwind. At the same time, it is not enough to establish an objective overlap of interests - interests that exist in principle must be consciously activated, cultural barriers removed and opportunities for joint political practice created in order to make the common interest the subject of socio-political debate.
However, if the power resources of trade unions, civil society and progressive parties can be pooled, as ver.di and Fridays for Future are currently doing to some extent in the fight for good collectively bargained work in local transport (see Steinert 2023), the current renaissance of working time policy can contribute to a fundamental societal, social and ecological awakening and make a left pole of hope recognizable and tangible in everyday life.
Candeias, Mario/Krull, Stephan (eds.), 2022: Spurwechsel. Studies on mobility industries,
employment potentials and alternative production, Hamburg, www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/sonst_publikationen/Spurwechsel_VSA.pdf
Dörre, Klaus, 2021: Gewerkschaften in der Großen Transformation - konservierende oder transformierende Interessenpolitik?, in: Flore, Manfred et al. (eds.), Unterwegs zur neuen Mobilität. Perspectives for transport, environment and work, Munich, 225-246
Frey, Philipp, 2023: The four-day week in the UK. The results of the largest pilot project worldwide to date, published by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, online publication 6/2023, www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/Artikel/6-23_Onl-Publ_Die_Vier-Tage-Woche.pdf
Liebig, Steffen, 2021: Working time reduction as a point of convergence?, Frankfurt a. M./New York
Lott, Yvonne/Windscheid, Eike, 2023: 4-day week. Advantages for employees and operational requirements for shorter working hours, Policy Brief 79, WSI 5/2023, www.wsi.de/fpdf/HBS-008610/p_wsi_pb_79_2023.pdf
Riexinger, Bernd/Becker, Lia, 2017: For the many, not the few: Good work for all!, Supplement to the journal Sozialismus 9/2017, www.sozialismus.de/fileadmin/users/sozialismus/pdf/Supplements/Sozialismus_Supplement_2017_09_Riexinger_Becker_NAV.pdf
Steinert, Nathalie, 2023: Striking for public transport means striking for the climate, in: LuXemburg-Online, April 2023, https://zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/artikel/fuer-den-oepnv-streiken/
Philipp Frey is a research associate at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis in Karlsruhe, Research Affiliate at the British Autonomy Think Tank and Chairman of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Baden-Württemberg.
Stephan Krull was a member of the works council at VW in Wolfsburg and is active in the Attac working group "ArbeitFairTeilen". He is also coordinator of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung discussion group "Zukunft Auto Umwelt Mobilität" (ZAUM).
IG-Metall demonstration in front of the Siemens plant in Kirchheim, 2004.
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